Would you believe that Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce wasn’t the moral center of M*A*S*H, the hit CBS series for 11 seasons from 1972-1983?
That’s what Alda would have us believe. Here. “I never saw myself as the moral center of M*A*S*H,” Alda told Jeff Greenfield during a conversation Tuesday night for the Museum of the Moving Image, co-presented by the Comedy Hall of Fame as it launched a new speaker series called “The Iconic Characters of Comedy.”
Alda, now 77, would have us believe he was but one of many humble actors trained in the theater who read and performed the words on the page developed by Larry Gelbart and adapted from the 1970 Robert Altman movie which, in turn, had adapted a 1968 novel by Richard Hooker about doctors at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. Of course, Alda also wrote 19 of the 251 sitcom episodes he starred in, directed 32 of them, and won Emmys in all three categories for it: acting, writing and directing. Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham have come close with triple nominations in recent years, but Alda so far remains the only one to grab all three awards for one series.
And more than 125 million viewers tuned in for the two-hour finale in 1983 — a record unmatched by any TV program other than the Super Bowl.
Three decades later, Alda sat down and reflected on his career, which began in his childhood and relied heavily on comedy and improvisation.
Among his reflections…
Alda was born in Manhattan but didn’t grow up in New York City:
“I didn’t spend much time here in the beginning because my father was in burlesque, and we used to travel from town to town and play…I’d be standing in the wings watching. That was. I was 2, 3, 4 years old. Watching the comics and the chorus girls and the strippers. It was a real education.”
Learning acting from the wings:
“I don’t think you can watch your parent from the wings and not say, ‘That’s where I belong.’ Not only that, I got an inside look at how it worked. When you watch from the wings, I think that’s the best way to learn about the theater. Because when you’re in the wings, you’re seeing how the illusion is created. If you watch a magician from the wings, you see where he hides the pigeons. And I could see where the comics hid the pigeons. And it really was educational. And I absorbed all of that at an early age.”
His earliest break came by performing classic Abbott & Costello with his father:
“When I was about 9 years old, he would take me to the Hollywood Canteen, where soldiers and sailors would come to be entertained by movie people on the way to the Pacific. The soldiers and sailors were on their way to the Pacific, not the movie people. And, so, my father could sing, he could do sketches, because he had come from burlesque. So he taught me ‘Who’s On First.’…I was Costello, and he was Abbott. And that was when I knew I had to be on the stage. Because I’d be standing in the wings, trembling from stage fright, holding the bat, and it almost slipping out of my hands because they were clammy, you know. And I’d walk on stage, and the warmth of the spotlight would flood over me, and I felt completely at home. And then I would get the first laugh. And this tremendous wave of laughter would come across the stage, and I was in control of people who earlier that night, that day, had been carrying guns. I was in control of everything. So. You can’t give that up once you taste it.”
Alda’s time in the Compass Players, the acting troupe which “foreshadowed the Second City,” found him impersonating John F. Kennedy and improvising it all:
“We were in the summer engagement … they had in the basement of the hotel, a cabaret in the basement of the same hotel where John Kennedy would give his press conferences in the morning, and at night, the reporters who were asking questions in the morning would come to our show at night, and I’d do an impromptu press conference, as John Kennedy. So I would get questions that he had been asked earlier that day, but they hadn’t shown up in the paper yet, so I had to make up foreign policy on the spot. But it was fun. Because that was spot improvisation. About half the show every night, for an hour, we’d do sketches that no one had ever done before — they were just improvised on the spot. It was a great education. It’s the best — it’s the only training I ever had as an actor was improvisation.”
Speaking of improv, the fourth season of M*A*S*H ended with an improvised episode, “The Interview,” which featured real TV anchor Clete Roberts interviewing the doctors in an episode inspired by Edward R. Murrow’s interviews with Marines during the Korean War.
“Larry (Gelbart) gave us tape recorders and a set of questions, and we went off by ourselves and answered the questions in character into the tape. Then he took those tapes, sharpened them up, punched them up with some jokes and made a script that we then learned…We would be answering with answers that we’d already improvised. Then he would ask us questions we had never heard before with the cameras rolling, and that produced some of the most interesting results. Because you were speaking as the person, and it really counted, and stuff came out of us that we didn’t know was in us sometimes.”
Alda and the late Bob Hope did not seem to be mutual friends. Alda recalls: “Bob Hope called (M*A*S*H) a Situation-Commie show.” And Alda on Hope: “I loved Bob Hope at the time. As Woody Allen says, he’s a really good movie actor. Bob Hope, he is. He plays a character. He created a character.”
Mike Nichols and Elaine May, however, Alda and his wife have always loved and still do:
“The one (record) I wore out was Nichols and May…Arlene and I still say lines to each other from that recording. He’s talking to a telephone operator, and he’s down to his last nickel, and he says, ‘I don’t want you to lose me. Don’t leave me! Don’t hit anything with your elbow or anything.’ She says, ‘We do not work with our elbows.’ So Arlene and I say that all the time. People listen to us don’t know what we’re talking about.”
He didn’t audition for M*A*S*H, reading the script and offered the part while filming The Glass House: “I never auditioned for it…They knew who I was, so they just offered me the part. I got the script while I was in the Utah State Prison…I was making a movie there.”
Alda denies arguments that his writing/directing influence shifted the tone of M*A*S*H into more drama than comedy:
“I was in no position to make a change like that. I was a writer on the show, but the producers were always the ones who ran the show. They didn’t. If I had an opinion, it wasn’t always accepted…No, no, I was not the creative force at all. I did the best I could whenever I was up at bat, to use a baseball analogy, which I’m not even sure I’m using correctly. One thing that’s said on the Web is that I was more political in the shows that I was responsible for — the opposite is true. Larry Gelbart in the first four years did political satire frequently in the show. I never wrote a show that was overtly political. The closest I came was a show where Hawkeye falls in love with a woman doctor, has trouble accepting her as an authority, because she’s a woman, so that was written from a feminist point of view. But that was not really political. And it couldn’t have been too egregious because it won an Emmy for writing. But I didn’t, I don’t like politics in writing. I really don’t like propaganda. I think it’s the opposite of art. And I mean, I think, art ought to strive to raise questions, not answer them.”
Alda did say, however, that the hardships of war added necessary drama to the proceedings, which, in turn, made the laughs hit that much harder, too. That really took shape after the first-season episode, “Sometimes You Hear The Bullet,” in which a friend of Hawkeye’s dies on the operating table.
“The network really hated that, that somebody would die in a comedy show. The head of the network said, ‘What is this, a situation-tragedy?’ But that was when we hit our stride, because that was the most overt occasion of letting the harsh results of war have a place in a show that was also a comedy, and it was the mixture of those two and we were finally able to find the right proportions, that gave the show a wallop. We wanted the comedy as a relief to the other stuff you were seeing. And I think you welcomed the difficult stuff because you knew that was how life really is.”
“It wasn’t hijinx at the front that we were doing.” “That was exactly our conversation the night before we started to work on it, that it wasn’t going to be McHale’s Navy — which totally ignored the hard parts.” “I couldn’t meet with them until the night before we were to start rehearsals. It wasn’t until we had that conversation that I could agree on whether to be in it, because I wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be McHale’s Navy, and just take all of those things lightly.”
And yet, the show had a laugh track. Sort of. Sometimes.
“Larry (Gelbart) and Gene (Reynolds) got the network to agree that they wouldn’t have a laugh track in the operating room. The operating room scenes. I don’t know what the rationale was. It didn’t make any sense in the tent, either. But, where’s the audience? I didn’t know where the audience was supposed to be. It wasn’t in the studio. Somehow it was the tradition that if we didn’t show the audience at home where to laugh, they would think it wasn’t funny.”
M*A*S*H spent its first season in the middle to back of the TV pack, ratings-wise, airing on Sunday nights. “In fact, I used to say, ‘We’re in the top 78!,'” Alda said. “We started to get an audience at the end of the first year when we went into reruns and the audience switched over from what they had been looking out to see what this new thing was, and then we started to get a pretty good audience.” That, and being moved to Saturday nights in the half-hour immediately following #1 show All in the Family certainly helped, too. Alda credited All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore with expanding the rules for situations that could be comedic, thereby opening the door for a series such as M*A*S*H.
He reiterated the importance for TV networks in taking chances on new ideas, even if they don’t test well among audience focus groups who haven’t had time yet to adjust to the newness of the idea: “Most of the big successes, the ones that really broke the mold, almost didn’t get on the air at the time.”
Related: Alan Alda also gave a lengthy retrospective interview four years ago to the Archive of American Television. Here is a clip of him stressing how happy it made him to win an Emmy for writing. Roll it.